Thursday, September 02, 2010

Focus On - Hoboken

TOTALLY unbeknown to me, the NJ Bike and Walk Coalition just started a series also called "Focus On" that they just published yesterday for the first time. I've been working on this first installment for over three weeks, well before I knew anything of their series so I not going to let them steal my thunder! :) Andy B.

This is first installment in what I hope I have time to turn into a running series. Since WalkBikeJersey generally looks a issues, stories and events of statewide importance, I thought it might be a good idea to try to place more focus on individual towns and projects that have the power to inspire and teach how to best accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians elsewhere. If one town or county has done something innovative here in New Jersey, maybe others will be more incline to give those treatments a try in their own communities. However, first they need to know about it!

To start this series, I thought that one could choose no better a place than Hoboken. While other towns may also have bike riding mayors and even their own Complete Streets policies, no other town is both as pedestrian friendly as Hoboken AND has started to build a comprehensive network of bike friendly facilities. Accordingly, there is much to talk about with regards to Hoboken and this first installment did get a bit longer than I would have liked. Still, if you’re a bike/ped planning wonk, I think (hope!) you’ll find this in-depth article interesting.

Anyway, for its groundbreaking work, Hoboken should be lauded and is why I honor it as being the first location covered in this new series. However, I still intend the coverage to be productively critical. If something is not up to best practice standards, it will be pointed out so that you, the readers (and hopefully local officials) can learn what the best practices are and most importantly, the logic behind these standards.

Without further delay; Focus On – Hoboken!

If you read the NJ Bike Ped News Digest regularly like I do, you will know that Hoboken’s Mayor, Dawn Zimmer rides her bike everywhere around town including most if not all of her official duties and functions. Who could blame her? In city only a mile square, built on a tradition grid, with no significant barriers, cycling is undoubtedly the quickest way around town and definitely the most fun. With a cycling mayor who was previously on the City Council, Hoboken has already done much to accommodate cyclists including using some very innovative road treatments. However, even though Hoboken is naturally well suited to transportation cycling, it is still much more (at the moment) a pedestrian town and that really can’t be forgotten.

The way many, if not most people enter Hoboken is through the Hoboken Rail and Bus Terminal. This terminal services seven NJ TRANSIT commuter rail lines, the Hudson Bergen Light Rail, a number of bus routes stations AND the PATH train. It is obviously a major hub of activity in Hoboken and is the portal by which a vast number of people enter the small city. Walking through the station one of the first sights people will see is a large amount of bicycle parking in and around the station. Some of the best parking is inside the station, sheltered from all weather on an unused station platform. This is by far some of the best bicycle parking at any NJ TRANSIT rail station. Unfortunately the bicycle parking provided does not come close to meeting demand, particularly in the Summer, as bicycles are crammed onto all available rack locations and also locked to anything else cyclists can securely lock their bicycles too (the below photo seems to be an exception from earlier in the summer).

Well placed, sheltered bicycle parking inside the Hoboken Terminal in early Summer.
Come August these racks were moved to a similar location close by
to make way for construction but were then loaded to capacity with bikes.

Another interesting aspect of the Hoboken Terminal is that the Hudson River Walkway goes right through the front (waterfront) end of the Terminal. The walkway comes up from Jersey City and the newly opened Pavonia Promenade from the south, passes the Light Rail portion of the terminal and continues north, right through the covered main rail terminal. What I found interesting is that while the walkway is also open to cyclists, there are no only very small and hard to see dismount signs for cyclists as they enter the covered and most busy portion of the terminal (it took several trips to the area for me to finally notice them). Amazingly (sarcasm alert!), cyclists manage not to crash into pedestrians or each other as they pass through the terminal even though there were always a few passing through the terminal at any given moment (at least while I was there). In fact, most if not all cyclists naturally understood that riding through this area is not the best idea, and dismounted and walked through the busy terminal. Still this is an area where a well placed and highly visible dismount sign on both ends of the terminal would probably be a good idea.

The Hudson River Walkway passes right through the terminal.

Notice the small dismount sign dangling over the water?
I didn't the first 3 times I passed by either.

Moving north beyond the terminal but staying along the waterfront, Hoboken has what I feel is the best-designed section of the Hudson River Walkway, particularly for cyclists. Here there is a separated tree-shaded bikeway, very similar in design to the Westside Greenway in Manhattan. Unfortunately, the bikeway is only a quarter mile long and pedestrians seem to prefer the bikeway rather than use the walkway along the beautiful waterfront.

The well design bikeway is nearly always full of pedestrians.

Leaving the waterfront and the terminal behind one finds Hoboken to be a vibrant and pleasant city. During the several times I visited this Summer, I couldn’t help but feel that today’s Hoboken is very much like the “old neighborhood” many of our parents and grandparents love to reminisce about. While Hoboken is known for being a trendy and chic place to live, it seems to balance it’s recently found “hipness” with a salt-of-the-earth character that comes from its old-timers that managed to pull through the lean times and into the city’s renaissance.

Sidewalks are ubiquitous throughout town and being as dense and small as Hoboken is, it is not surprising to read that 95% of all trips within town are done on foot. Washington Street, Hoboken’s Main Street, is lined with all sorts of shops, restaurants, groceries, etc. Along much of Washington the extra wide sidewalks have been maintained, which gives plenty of room for commerce to literally spill out of shops without obstructing pedestrian movement in the slightest and restaurants and caf├ęs have plenty of room to set up plenty tables on this extra wide sidewalk. On some blocks however, the sidewalks appear to have been narrowed at some point in the past to provide room for more cars in the form of angled parking. While these sections of sidewalk do not appear noticeably narrow on these blocks, it is immediately apparent that the areas with the wider sidewalks are much more pleasant and have a better pedestrian environment since there is much more room for all to do business and walk around.

One of the most innovative things I saw was the use of flexible bollards placed in the street to prevent people from parking too close to corners and stop signs. Used in a few locations this is an absolutely brilliant idea and one I’ve only read about but never saw used in practice. Any town with aggressive illegal parking should take note! It’s only a shame that they were used in only two or three locations because illegal parking at corners and in crosswalks was rampant when I was there last and causes obvious safety issues for pedestrians and other traffic as well.

These flexible bollards are enough to prevent the owner of a $100,000+
Italian sports car from parking illegally in front of the stop-sign but would
the driver of a beat-up old delivery or pick-up truck even care?

Moving back bikes, the one thing that really sets Hoboken apart from almost any other New Jersey municipality is the comprehensive bicycle network the city is planning. Like with any bicycle transportation network anywhere, Hoboken’s is a work in progress. What is very interesting is that Hoboken has been bold enough to be the first in New Jersey to try some innovative bicycle amenities like “sharrows”. Unfortunately, due to political compromise or whatever other reasons, the execution of these bicycle amenities could have been done better.

Where the heck is the bicycle rack? Its way down the street behind the guy in the red shirt.
Oh! That's too far. I'll just park my bike here. By the way, nice wide sidewalks!

Staying on Washington Street for a moment, the first thing any cyclist will notice is the lack of a bike lane. Again, being the center of commerce in the city, there is obvious bicycle traffic demand. Bicycles were parked everywhere along the street (and I mean everywhere - more on that in a moment) and this was the only street that I can distinctly remember seeing numbers of other cyclists ride along. Unfortunately, this was one of the places where I once heard that political compromise prevented the installation of a bicycle lane or other bicycle traffic amenity. Cyclists can still approach Washington from one of the quieter side streets to their destination but if they need to go to two or more places on Washington, they would either have to go out of there way back around to those side streets or brave busy traffic. There seems to be enough room for cyclists (and for a bike lane for that matter) so most cyclists just deal with the traffic.

Also, while there is bicycle parking on every commercial block on Washington, unfortunately for whatever reason there is only one bicycle rack and it is placed in the center of the block. The blocks on Washington are long and if one’s destination is closer to a corner, it is impossible to even see the rack down the street. Bicycle parking cannot be approached in the same way car parking is done. Cyclists are much more like pedestrian in this respect and they simply ride directly to their destination before seeking a place to park. Once at their final destination they simply park their bikes to the first secure object they see. If it’s a bike rack, they will usually prefer to lock the bike to it if there is room, but if the rack is not noticeable or close enough so the owner can keep an eye on there bike while at their destination, they will just park to whatever is close by. Unfortunately, Hoboken is not alone in NOT getting all the details right about bicycle parking and mistakes like that described above and others are far too common in New Jersey.

Here on Washington Street, I’d suggest eliminating the central bicycle racks which are the substandard “wave” design (see the Association of Pedestrian & Bicycle Professionals bicycle parking guide, 1st edition will do) and install a series of the much more secure and industry standard “inverted U” racks at even intervals along the entire length of the block. While a series of racks will certainly cost more to install upfront (and is probably the reason for the single bicycle rack) it should eliminate most of the unwanted bicycle parking on street signs, benches, trees and parking meters, and the damage (costs) to these objects that unwanted bicycle parking always causes. Finally, proper and clearly available bike parking also prevents bicycles from obstructing pedestrian movements that comes from people parking bikes to whatever they can loop their bicycle locks around.

While I haven’t been on every street in Hoboken, I have traveled to every corner of the small city by bicycle. On the two streets that I found with bicycle lanes, Hoboken places them on the left side of the street (Hoboken is mostly one-way streets). However they are placed squarely in the “door zone”. (Not to go into too much detail but the logic for placing he lanes on the left comes from New York City across the Hudson. The reasoning behind this practice is threefold: 1 – Drivers can see a cyclist better if the cyclist on the driver’s side of the car, 2- the cyclist is less likely to get “doored” since there aren’t always passengers exiting parked cars but there is always a driver, 3- and most importantly, moving cyclists to the left eliminates conflicts with cross town buses that stop at every other corner.). When I was on the streets with bike lanes, the traffic was rather sparse, almost non-existent. This factor alone seems to question the need for the lanes at all. I just took the regular traffic lane with absolutely no complaints from drivers since there were none.

Does this section of Grand Street require a bike lane with little to no traffic?

However, I did once read an article that Hoboken is also hoping that the lanes would calm traffic on these streets when it is there. This too is a very valid reason to install bicycle lanes. However on Grand Street, even with a bike lane and car parking on both sides, the remaining travel lane seemed very wide and still conducive to speeding by uncaring drivers. A better solution to me would have been to make the bike lane even wider (on the streets that have the room), preferably with a gore-stripped buffer from the parked cars to avoid all dooring. On narrower streets with little traffic, well-placed “sharrows” would seem to be a better option over bike lanes.

Where bike lanes are the best option on wider one-way streets, I’d personally like to see theme placed on the right side of the road. If there is already room to move bikes away from the door zone with a buffer then dooring is no longer an issue and that would eliminate that reason for putting them on the left. Hoboken also doesn’t have any regular cross-town buses running on its one-way streets with bike lanes (as far as I could observe), which eliminates this reason too. There is also an expectation by both cyclists and drivers that cyclists will be on the right side of the road unless they are turning left. Finally, I have also observed from riding in New York City, that when a bike lane is on the left, drivers feel more comfortable coming uncomfortably close to a cyclist while they leave 6 feet of space and more for the parked cars to the right side of their cars.

Finally and possibly most interesting for New Jersey cyclists is Hoboken’s use of “sharrows” on narrow one-way streets where there is not enough room for a bike lane or even enough room for a car driver to safely pass a cyclist. Hoboken should be given credit for being one of the first New Jersey municipalities to have the guts to try using this new traffic control device. Unfortunately here again the important details in properly applying this device have been lost. On the very narrow one-way streets where sharrows are used they are placed so far to the right side of the travel lane that the right eight to twelve inches of the sharrows were often under the left side wheels of parked cars. If a cyclist were to use the sharrows as intended by riding directly over the center of the sharrow cyclists would be so far over to the right side of the roadway that they would be in danger of striking the rear-view mirrors of the parked cars, never mind that they would be at serious risk or doorings. Even further, cyclists are so far over to the right of the narrow lanes that their lane placement would encourage overly aggressive drivers to attempt to pass when there is clearly not enough room to do so at all. Also don’t forget that Hoboken’s bike lanes are on the left, so why switch things around for sharrow use? This only adds an extra and unnecessary element of unpredictability. While the placement of the sharrows may meet the absolute minimum distance of 11ft from the curb to the center of the sharrow (and I'm doubtful that they are at that minimum) according to the 2009 MUTCD (see page 22 of Part 9), one should remember that this is a recommended MINIMUM distance on streets with parallel parking and not the maximum.

"Sharrows" positioned to the extreme right of the narrow traffic lane.
This sharrow placement was typical around Hoboken. In some places, parked
cars actually had their left tires on top of the right side of the sharrow.

Again, Hoboken is a fun and easy town to walk and bike around. I don’t want to give readers the idea that this is not the case. I also don’t want to sound ungrateful for the statewide, groundbreaking innovations that Hoboken had the fortitude to install in an effort to promote bicycle and pedestrian safety.

However I feel that New Jersey bicyclists and bicycle advocates in particular deserve to hear a knowledgeable, and unbiased and unbridled opinion when it comes to the finer points of bicycle facility design. Again, too often bicycle facilities are installed in New Jersey that are less than ideal and in some cases downright dangerous. Unfortunately, there are few people in New Jersey that have the understanding of the finer points of bicycle and pedestrian facility design that are also at liberty to openly and critically discuss these shortcomings. It is my hope to us this blog and the “Focus On” series to help discuss these finer points in an open, unbiased and most of all, productive way.

Next in the series: Focus On - Princeton

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